The Finals matchup: Celtics vs. Warriors for NBA title
Somewhere, Gregg Popovich must be pleased.
Ime Udoka and Steve Kerr played for Popovich with of the San Antonio Spurs, both served as assistant coaches under him, and neither makes any effort to hide the affinity they have for the NBA’s career victory leader.
And now, Udoka and Kerr are about to go head-to-head — in the NBA Finals.
The title matchup is set: It’ll be Udoka and the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics facing Kerr and the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors, a series that begins Thursday night in San Francisco. The teams split their two regular-season meetings, each winning on the other’s home floor.
The Warriors have been waiting for an opponent since this past Thursday after needing only five games to beat Dallas for the West title. The Celtics got there the hard way, winning Game 7 in Miami on Sunday night to capture the East.
“We stayed with it. We believed in each other. We made a commitment on the defensive end," said Celtics forward Al Horford, who, after 141 playoff games, is headed to the NBA Finals for the first time. “That was the biggest thing, defending."
For the Celtics, it’s a chance at an 18th NBA championship — which would break the tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most in league history. For the Warriors, it’s a chance at a seventh crown — which would break a tie with the Chicago Bulls for third-most in league history.
It’s also a rematch of the 1964 finals, when Bill Russell and the Celtics topped the Warriors in five games.
“I’ve said it many times: You go to the finals, it’s almost a two-month journey filled with stress and fatigue and everything else,” said Kerr, who gave his team Friday and Saturday off before bringing them back to work Sunday. “So, if you can get a little bit of a break, it’s very meaningful. Hopefully, we can get healthy and have a few days of really good prep and be ready to go on Thursday.”
Golden State won at Boston 111-107 on Dec. 17, behind 30 points from Stephen Curry. The Celtics rolled on Golden State’s home floor in the rematch on March 16, winning 110-88 in the game in which Curry injured his foot — and that’s where his regular season ended.
Curry was ready to go for the playoffs. So were the rest of the Warriors. They’re 12-4 in the playoffs, getting through Denver, Memphis and Dallas to get to the title round.
“It all starts with Steph,” Kerr said.
Udoka has a chance to become the 10th coach to win a title in his first season. Eddie Gottlieb (1947 Philadelphia Warriors), Buddy Jeanette (1948 Baltimore Bullets), John Kundla (1949 Minneapolis Lakers), George Senesky (1956 Philadelphia Warriors), Paul Westhead (1980 Los Angeles Lakers), Pat Riley (1982 Los Angeles Lakers), Tyronn Lue (2016 Cleveland Cavaliers) and Nick Nurse (2019 Toronto Raptors) are eight of the coaches who have pulled off the feat.
The other name on that list is Kerr — who did it with Golden State in 2015, the start of this run of greatness from the Warriors. That was the beginning of six finals appearances in eight years, the two exceptions being when injuries and a roster reset kept them from the playoffs in 2020 and 2021.
“You can’t take it for granted,” Curry said after the West title series. “Nothing’s ever guaranteed. We understand how hard it is to win. We’ve said that until we’re blue in the face the last two years. This is definitely special. Proud of everybody that is in that locker room, that came with it all year. Now we have an opportunity to go finish a job.”
Udoka played for Popovich and later was a San Antonio assistant. Kerr played for the Spurs, then assisted Popovich with USA Basketball through last summer’s Tokyo Olympics — when the Americans won a fourth consecutive gold medal.
The Warriors’ Draymond Green was on that Olympic team. So was Boston’s Jayson Tatum. They celebrated winning gold together, and now they’ll try to go through one another to get their fingerprints on the gold trophy that goes to the NBA champions — the Larry O’Brien.
“This is an opportunity that players dream of,” Golden State's Andrew Wiggins said. “To be put in a position to win it all.”
And if nothing else, a Warriors-Celtics matchup made Green seem prophetic.
After the Warriors won the West, Green visited the TNT broadcast set after the game and was prodded by Shaquille O’Neal to say which team from the then-undecided East title series that he would like to play.
Green began giving a diplomatic answer, saying that both the Heat and Celtics were tough. O’Neal pressed him to be honest, and Green — never shy with words — gave in.
“You’re asking me who I want to play. I’m gonna tell who I think we’re going to play: We’re going to play Boston,” Green said Thursday night. “That’s who we’re going to play.”
He was right.
East No. 2 BOSTON CELTICS (51-31, 12-6) vs. West No. 3 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (53-29, 12-4)
Season series: Tied, 1-1. Golden State won at Boston 111-107 on Dec. 17. The Celtics rolled on Golden State’s home floor in the rematch on March 16, winning 110-88.
Schedule: Thursday and Sunday at San Francisco, June 8 and 10 at Boston, June 13 at San Francisco if necessary, June 16 at Boston if necessary, June 19 at San Francisco if necessary.
Storyline: A rematch of the 1964 NBA Finals. Golden State is seeking a fourth championship in eight years, while the Celtics are trying to break a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers and become the first team with 18 NBA titles. Celtics coach Ime Udoka will seek to become the 10th coach in NBA history to win a title in his first season, something that Golden State’s Steve Kerr did with the Warriors in 2015.
The starters matchup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney for the Warriors against Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Robert Williams III for the Celtics. Put simply, it’s the great offense of Golden State against the great defense of Boston. The experience edge goes to the Warriors. But Smart, Brown and Tatum have been building for this moment and are now, officially, a Big 3. Smart — the defensive player of the year — will draw the primary assignment on Curry, the most prolific and probably most creative 3-point shooter in the history of the game.
The bench keys: Derrick White had a huge Eastern Conference finals for Boston, and Jordan Poole has exceeded all reasonable expectations for Golden State throughout the playoffs. If the Warriors get Gary Payton II back to form in this series after his elbow fracture, that’s a huge plus. Grant Williams would be another X-factor off the bench for Boston and will likely log huge minutes anyway because it wouldn’t seem likely that Robert Williams III — dogged by knee recovery — will be on the floor a ton.
Injury watch: Williams III has been on the floor for Boston, but limited and limping often. Otto Porter Jr. (left foot) is planning to return in this series for the Warriors. Payton II’s return would give the Warriors a boost, particularly on the defensive end. The Warriors’ Andre Iguodala, who has said he’s retiring after this season, has missed the last 12 games with a cervical disc issue.
Numbers of note: The Celtics have played exactly 100 games so far this season — they went 25-25 in the first 50, 38-12 in the second 50. ... Golden State has a league-best 25 wins this season in games where it trailed after the first quarter, with six of those wins coming in the playoffs. ... Warriors coach Steve Kerr has the best postseason winning percentage in NBA history at .736 (89-32). He’s coaching in the NBA Finals for the sixth time, something only Phil Jackson (13 times), Red Auerbach (11), Pat Riley (9), John Kundla (6) and Gregg Popovich (6) have done. ... Boston’s magic number this season: 107. The Celtics were 48-9 when holding teams to 107 or less, 15-28 when allowing 108 or more. ... Golden State’s magic number this season: 115. The Warriors were 61-15 when holding teams to 115 or less, 4-18 when allowing 116 or more. ... Warriors players Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney have a combined 1,930 points in the NBA Finals entering this season. Everyone else in this series, including the entire Boston roster, has combined for zero.
Associated Press prediction: The Celtics won four relatively close games to sweep a Brooklyn team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Round 1, won a Game 7 against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2, then went on the road to beat Miami in a Game 7 for the East title. They are, by any definition, battle tested. The Warriors are trying to pull off a comeback story; they were the best show in basketball from 2015 through 2019, hit the reset button while dealing with injuries and roster revamping, and here they are on the brink of another title. They are proven, and their history — 26 consecutive series with at least one road win — means that Boston will probably have to win twice at Chase Center to pull this off. Not going to be a romp, but Warriors in six.